Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Iceland 2016: Reykjahlíð to Borgarnes

Ahhhh Sunday. I started off this morning driving south along the Myvatn Lake area, an area that’s been vastly different in terms of topography. 

These patches of land in northern Iceland have had their fair share of weathering and exposure to Iceland’s fierce volcanic activity, as mentioned in yesterday’s post. Black, rough craggy lava fields are everywhere, rising from the ground above your head to create these fort-like sculptures and shapes. Flocks of birch trees fight for space, sprouting up where they can. It’s hypnotic just how much of a difference volcanic activity can make. Just fascinating. 
There’s the Hofoi Nature Park, which was the perfect way to start off the morning by doing some hiking. Trees everywhere! You know that certain feeling and sense in the air when you’re walking through a good forest? Yeah I got a much-needed exposure to it, something I appreciate in the land of little trees (both figuratively and literally). Climbing a hill, you get stellar views of the clear Myvatn Lake and a top-down view of all those strange rocky formations the lava field has created.

But wait…there’s more! One waterfall I’ve been really looking forward to seeing over here on my trip is Goðafoss or the ‘Waterfall of the Gods’. It’s pronounced like God-a-foss and it’s been the most magestic waterfall I’ve seen yet. Not the tallest, loudest or most powerful- but elegant should I say. The Skjálfandafljót river gently falls over 30m-wide Goðafoss. The far-off views encompassing Goðafoss are excellent too. You can see Goðafoss from two sides, hike from the main parking area down and cross an old bridge high above the river below. You’ll get to see smaller, impressive Geitafoss too, which is downstream from grander Goðafoss. Make your way up the path and view Goðafoss’s glory from the west. Soak in its elegance. 
After awing over yet another crazy beautiful waterfall, I got back on the road and headed west towards the second biggest city in Iceland: Akureyri. Smaller and quieter than bustling Reykjavik in the south, Akureyri still has a nice charm about it. I tried to cover a lot of land today but the two places I did want to visit in the city of 18,000 were the main church and botanical gardens. 
Akureyrarkirkja was built in 1940 by the same architect who designed the capital city of Reykjavik’s main church. Super excited to see that one. A short ten minute walk from the church up the hill deeper in to down takes you to Lystigarourinn, the northern most botanical garden in the world. I took a stroll through this pleasant place, checking out a whole lush variety of plants (some covered in snow) and trees both from Iceland and afar. Next trip to Iceland I need to spend at least a day or two exploring more of this town.

Instead of continuing on Route 1, the Ring Road, I wanted to go north again into the country and drive the coast of the Trollaskagi Peninsula just north of Akueryi. Plus it just sounds cool….Tollaskagi. Routes 82 and 76 take you along the coast of northern Iceland, again within shouting distance of the Artic Circle. You pass through sweet quaint fishing towns like Dalvík, Hofsós and at the far north tip- Siglufjörður. Views are jaw-dropping per usual as the road hugs the North Atlantic ocean and cuts through mountain passes caked with snow on top. This part of the country is just so picturesque its crazy. Every corner could be a post card. Speaking of mountain passes, let’s get back to that. 
There are two, massively long one-lane tunnels you have to drive through on your way to Siglufjörður. Each one took me like around 15 minutes to drive through at 60 kmh. They’re dark and near flat straight so you can see alllllllll the orange lights illuminating this tube you’re driving through deep below the ground. Every 100 feet or so there’s a pull-off area to yield to an oncoming car and they each have a fire extinguisher and SOS phone should you get into trouble. You know what else are in these dark, never-ending one-lane tunnels? Speed cameras. Yep, Iceland 5-0 doesn’t tolerate speeding, even underground. 
When you come out of the first long tunnel from the east, you enter into a mountainous valley at the base of Heoinsfjörður. Complete solitude. There’s no buildings, no traffic, no noise. Just a few hundred-foot road that leads from one tunnel into the other. I of course, got out and hiked into the valley a little bit. One of my top favorite things about Iceland has been just the sheer vast amounts of open, desolate wilderness. It’s just you and the Icelandic wilderness.

I reached Siglufjörður close to 4pm. It’s a gorgeous town along a fjord with colorful houses and an evident history of its golden days of Herring fishing. There’s a fantastic museum dedicated to the Herring fishing era right on the shoreline on the main drag in town that allows you to walk through multiple exhibits, see old fishing boats, tour an almost completely untouched Salting building with the dusty, cramped staff quarters upstairs and learn how the Herring fishing crazy bloomed many of Iceland’s coastal towns and then led to their dissolve. 
So, a quick history lesson on Iceland’s first big export industry that drove the country in the 1800s and early to mid-1900s. Herring is a small fish caught and both ate as a delicacy but then also a key ingredient to fish-oil and fish-meal, the meal being used for agricultural fertilizer and in some foods. The Norwegians came over to Iceland and started fishing the heck out of Herring, building processing factories and shipping ports all around the coast, then Iceland took over, creating Herring fishing companies of their own and even state-run entities. For an unfair time, fishermen from Norway had first dibs at the Herring even though their fishing was in Icelandic waters and processing factories were on Iceland themselves. Eventually, the days of Herring fishing stopped as sharp result of overfishing. These Herring towns that once employed thousands of workers and were the up-and-coming boomtowns in Iceland transformed into almost-ghost towns as Herring output declined rapidly. In Raufarhöfn, the town I was in a few days ago in the northern most point in the country, you can see a few rows of gloomy, empty prefabbed housing units built for when Herring fishing was their gold and silver decades ago. To put facts on paper, according to the museum, as of 2012, three fish-meal companies account for 70% of Iceland’s fish-meal production across 11 plants throughout the country. Daily combined, they produce about 10,500 tonnes per day. In 1966 when Herring fishing and production was in its prime, there were 45 plants across Iceland putting out nearly 16,000 tonnes per day.

Deviate off Route 1, the Ring Road, and go visit this impressive museum far up in the Trollaskagi Peninsula. What got me hooked and why I came to Iceland was mainly to see all the outdoor masterpieces across the country. The bold waterfalls, the deep canyons, the ridiculously tall snowy mountains, puzzling black beaches, mossy lava fields and tangled birch forests. But what’s just as important if not more when you go to a brand-new part of the world for the first time, is to strive to learn about the people, their culture and rich history. You need that full exposure. I’m so glad I did that today.

Enjoy some more photos from today's adventures below.